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When I was still in high school in Alaska, I had it in my head for a while that I wanted to be a producer or a sound engineer. I was already way into music. I'd self-published fanzines in Colorado, Texas, and Alaska, but at the time, writing about music didn't seem like a very reasonable career goal.
At one of the school's college fairs, featuring booths from a crapload of schools that want parents' money, I picked up some literature from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. The Conservatory's located in Tempe, with a second campus in Gilbert, and reading that brochure was the first I'd ever heard of Tempe (where I've now lived for more than a decade).
I never followed through with the sound engineer plan, although if I had, I'd likely have chosen to attend the Conservatory. It's got a stellar reputation as one of the premier audio engineering schools in the nation. Though "conservatory" may have a classicist ring to it, they cover every aspect of sound engineering here, from live sound to studio recording to producing to editing into movies and video games. The Conservatory is valuable no matter what kind of music you want to make.
Lately, I've been hanging around with several members of the current class at the Conservatory, guys whose ages run from the teens to mid-thirties, listening to their projects and hearing what they're getting out of their education. Their goals vary, but kicking it with them and hearing them explain how their education has upped their game makes me believe that at least a couple of them are going to have long careers in production and engineering.
It all starts with my homeboy, DJ My Friend Andy (a.k.a. Andy Spiker), who moved back to Arizona this past summer from Portland specifically to attend the Conservatory. Andy's looking at a career scoring films or video games, but at the same time, I've spent countless hours in his apartment listening to him fuck around on turntables and his ProTools setup. He's been working on a Modest Mouse remix album for quite a while now, laying beats and samples over mostly mid-career Modest Mouse tracks like "Cowboy Dan" (which he turned into "Powwow Dan," with the addition of some Native American chanting) and "Wild Packs of Family Dogs."
Prior to his Conservatory education, Andy was all about live DJing. Now it's rare that you can pull him off his ProTools to go bust a live set (though he was holding down a weekly night at Mamacita's a few months back).
It was through Andy that I met the other Conservatory kids whose music I've heard and whose brains I've picked. Their goals are all pretty similar, but it's what I'm hearing from them now that interests me. Hearing them in an embryonic stage of development, I can visualize where they're heading with the music they make.
Twenty-year-old Al Giles is a Sedona native who goes by AlGae and makes a twitchy IDM sort of electronica, in the vein of Kid 606 and the artists on NinjaTune Records. "I came to the Conservatory originally 'cause I've been messing around with digital music, using Acid Pro, Frooty Loops, all that on the computer, and I got to a point where I felt I could use the technology but I didn't know what the hell I was doing with it," Giles says. "All my music was coming out sounding really wrong; it wasn't working for me. I felt like I had to do something and get out of Sedona."
He did, and after a solid six months at the school, he feels pretty adept at making the programs do exactly what he wants them to do. His tracks bear this out, too (you can hear samples on my "Ear Infection" blog). The songs are layered, glitch-and-bleep-filled montages of sound not really dance music, but definitely what would fall into the electronica category.
On the other side of the producer game, 34 year-old Bryan "Huedon" Gaston, from Jackson, Mississippi, and 19 year-old Jodson "Big J" Graves, from Lawton, Oklahoma, are each working on the hip-hop and R&B production tip. Gaston, who also raps, explains to me, "I used to think that being a producer was just making beats. Now I see a producer arranges the music, he points out the studios, he gets the people, gets songwriters to do a lot more than I thought he did."
Graves had the same misconception as Gaston, which the Conservatory has remedied that being a producer is merely dropping beats and a melody with an MPC and a Casio. "I listen to some of my old stuff now and its just garbage compared to what I make now," Graves says. Both Graves and Gaston are already working with other artists, primarily from their hometowns, and you can hear their work at www.myspace.com/capitaljstudios and www.myspace.com/huedon, respectively.
In contrast, 22-year-old California native Rafael Flores is coming from the same perspective I was when I thought I might be an engineer. "I went [to the Conservatory] because I've loved music all my life," Flores says. "I wanted to know how they make records. I listen to some of the records I have and wonder how they got it to sound so good. It's an art form. Once I've interned, I want to see if I want to own my own studio."
That's exactly what my thoughts were. But at least Flores has a backup plan: "If it doesn't work out, I'll probably be a correction officer."